Transparency & Community Engagement: Part 1

The post that follows isn’t new.  But because I will be writing about the concepts in this post  this week, I thought I’d start by posting it again, as a sort of “refresher course.”  Tomorrow, I’ll post about why I am thinking so much about the concept of Community Engagement.  (Hint – it has to do with honest transparency and an authentic accountability that goes beyond balance sheets and HR policies…)

Enjoy the refresher, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow!


My black Lab, Hallie, owned our back yard. She would dig. She would run deep grooves into the grass. Garden after garden fell to Hallie’s exploits.

Finally, I dug up a plot next to the driveway. And I planted my vegetables in the front yard.

That was twenty years ago – two houses ago, a marriage and another dog ago. And still, my garden is in the front yard.

Tomatoes and okra and basil and zucchini in the summer; lettuce and carrots and peas and broccoli in the desert winter. All in the front yard.

Why the front yard? Because my garden makes friends.

Since moving into my current home, my front yard garden has introduced me to neighbors from many blocks away. Some ask gardening questions. Some put my house on their morning walk route to see what’s new. And some bring gifts.

That’s how I met Earl. My doorbell rang one morning, and there stood a sweet, elderly man holding a plastic baggie filled with sunflower seeds. “My wife used to love driving by your house. She always wanted to see what was new. I lost her last month.” He handed me the bag of seeds. “These are from her sunflowers.”

And every year from then on, I have planted a wall of sunflowers, swirling along the front sidewalk in honor of Earl’s love for his wife. And of course those giant flowers bring more new friends.

So why am I telling you this?

Because planting your garden in the front yard is precisely what Community Engagement is all about.

Community Engagement forms real, honest, engaged relationships between members of the community and your organization’s mission and vision.

Community Engagement is not marketing or fundraising or volunteer recruitment, but it will certainly accomplish those things. It will also help you build the most effective programs possible. It will help you further every single one of your goals. And it will help you with the biggest goal of all – building an engaged community (the same goal as my front yard garden).

But here’s the real secret – and it is what separates Community Engagement from Marketing and all those other “just for show” efforts: For engagement to work, it has to be honest; it has to be real.

If my front yard were merely a well-manicured, just-for-show row of hedges, no one would stop. No one would introduce themselves. No one would make my house a special part of their day.

My neighbors stroll by because my garden is honest, authentic. In the morning, they find me working. At dinner time, they find us harvesting. There are butterflies and ladybugs, and finches all over the sunflowers. My neighbors don’t just see the final product; they also see the sweat, the compost, the pruning, the digging. I do not have to tell my neighbors I want to engage them; my garden shows them.

And when they walk by with a friend, pointing out this or that, they do so with pride, as if some part of my garden is also theirs. Because, in part, it is.

So how about your organization? Are you gardening in the front yard? Are you sharing the inner workings of what it takes to do your work, so the world can become engaged with that work? Are you being as open and inviting as you can be? Can your community connect so deeply and easily with your work, that they feel as if it is their work, too?

Or do you feel those inner workings are meant for the back yard, only showing the world a perfectly manicured lawn and hedge? The difference is more than just metaphor. The difference is the degree to which the community feels a part of everything your organization does.

The more your community feels they are a part of your work – the more they can point with pride, as if your work is their own as well – the more effective your mission will be, in every single way.

(Photo credit: My garden’s abundance, and Earl’s Sunflowers)

Click for Part 2 of this post – applying engagement and transparency directly to our work

5 Responses to Transparency & Community Engagement: Part 1

  1. Thank you. It is a perpetual struggle to keep stuff out of the back yard (office) and show the institution’s real face not the glam photo. I don’t think it is because we’re hiding wrongdoing, but just as you say, we feel we must be perfectly manicured out front.
    Making space for volunteers is one way of sharing our real operation. I’m wondering about others.

  2. We have a big front porch, and I’m out there most of the spring, summer, and fall with my 3 kids. And so another benefit of this ‘front yard living’, that I’ve noticed, is not just engaging others in our lives (we have a ‘community’ in large part, I believe, because we demonstrate that we want one) but also helping me to be conscious about how I parent in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t if we were always behind closed doors. So transparent, engaged organizations don’t just transform others’ lives with their transparency, but also their own.

  3. When we’re not being transparent, we can’t see eye-to-eye with our community. The lack, or disregard, of transparency is like putting up veils between us and our future.

    Transparency isn’t one-sided. It’s much more than the outside looking in. Transparency releases those veils so the community benefit organization itself can evolve, experience & engage the outside world with greater clarity and depth.

  4. Carolyn:
    Thank you for thinking about this! The most direct way to consider engagement is to ask, for each effort your organization embarks upon: “Are there groups with whom we might engage, that could enhance this effort?” That question will help guide you to all sorts of possibilities.

    I love your parenting analogy – and the result! Yes, engagement and transparency really does change everything!!!

    Your observation is spot on. It is 2-way and it does change everything. Change is not always fun – sometimes feels bumpy. But it does, as you note, help us move to what’s next. Most cool!